Remember the story of how Wendy Darling first met Peter Pan? She found him weeping in the family nursery. Separated from his shadow during a narrow escape, he had returned and found the shadow but didn’t know how to reattach it. With motherly compassion, Wendy sewed it back on for him. Within moments, Peter and the reunited shadow were flying happily around the nursery.
Defining grace is about as easy as grasping one’s own shadow. Sometimes, in the quiet of the night, grace looms large … yet, in the heat of day, it may seem barely there. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines grace as “favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God.” (#1996) Brief as it is, this current understanding of grace has been 2000 years in the making. Over the centuries, Scripture, tradition and human experience have helped us to catch occasional glimpses of grace.
Throughout the Scriptures, those who are graced are said to be favored by God, the beneficiaries of God’s unearned, undeserved, covenantal love. St. Augustine described our graced relationship with God by writing, “Working with us, God completes what he started working in us; for at the beginning, he works to makes us will, and at the end, works with us when we will.”
Building on St. Augustine’s work, St. Thomas Aquinas systematized and organized our theology of grace. He said, “… eternal life is a goal out of all proportion to human nature; so man has no natural ability to earn it; for this he needs a greater grace-given ability.” St. Thomas maintained that even though we need grace to overcome sin, we are still free to choose whether or not to prepare ourselves to receive grace. In seeking grace, we are in a free partnership with God. We cannot attain it on our own, yet we must of our own free will want grace to receive it.
The Catholic theology of grace became misconstrued, even distorted in practice, during the Reformation era when many people considered grace a commodity dispensed by the Church rather than by God. Fortunately, as time went on, the Church recognized the need to reevaluate its notion of grace. The writings of Father Karl Rahner, SJ, were instrumental in this movement. Father Rahner’s work helped the Church to realign its theology of grace more closely with that of Scripture and early tradition – to shift from thinking of grace primarily as a created entity to understanding it as a sharing of God’s self with humanity.
The contemporary theologian Frederick Beuchner poetically described this understanding of grace by writing:
Grace is something you can never get but only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more that you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth.
A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace. Have you ever tried to love somebody?
A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.
There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.
Like Peter Pan, we sometimes fear we have lost the shadow of God’s grace. We frantically search for it, trying on our own to reattach it. At times like these, God, the compassionate seamstress, finds us weeping and tenderly stitches us back together.
Still, we need not fear becoming detached from God’s grace. Grace is not something we can lose or gain. It is not ours to master or control. Grace is God’s free gift to us – a gift to be glimpsed occasionally - to be accepted and grateful for always.
 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae: A Concise Translation, ed. Timothy McDermott (Allen, Texas, Christian Classics, 1989), p. 309.
 Aquinas, p. 311.
 Frederick Beuchner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (New York, Harper & Row, 1973), pp.33-34.
C) 2013 Mary T. Vaccaro, Grand Rapids, MI